Monday, December 15, 2008

Europeans and Kansas

This past weekend, I went to a Christmas party thrown by one of my Irish colleagues and her Irish roommate. Part of the merriment of the party was that we lecturers at Nanterre could finally relax and actually talk to each other about stuff other than school. And we got to talk to people that we just never see at the university because of our schedules. Naturally, everyone still wanted to know exactly where everyone else was from. (Probably so we can make little judgments or little jokes about it.) Although I've lived in Wisconsin for the past several years, I always tell new acquaintances that I'm from Kansas. It's still "home" to me, as it's where my family and some very dear friends are. Anyone from Kansas can imagine the kinds of responses I got, each one different.

The Irish roommate asked if I knew Clark Kent by chance. This is the first time anyone has asked me this and being a superhero fan, I was tickled. This has to be the best reaction anyone has had about my origins.

The two Irish friends who lived in the country and who were prone to sheep invading their yards said that to them Kansas seemed like such a magical place. Magical!?! Well, they explained, it was a place they associated with the Wizard of Oz. Of course it was magical. I think this is possibly the nicest version of the "Dorothy and Toto" response that I have ever gotten. I decided I liked these Irish folks.

The last response came from one of my English colleagues who had perhaps the most critical question to ask me. "Kansas, eh? How's evolution going down there?" Sigh. Fair enough question, but I cringed as I explained to the other Europeans about the creationists who want to have religion taught in science classes. They were both amused and horrified I think.

And so I've concluded from all this that in the European mind, Kansas must indeed be a mystical place. Although a seemingly humble state often represented in films as nothing more than farmhouses, livestock and fields, it is Superman's home. Dorothy and Toto were whisked away from Kansas to an magical kingdom with talking lions and tin men. Even The Onion compared Kansas to the Bermuda Triangle at one point. And of course, there's creationism. Who would have thought that my home state would seem so fantastical to the folks on the other side of the pond?

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


I love teaching. To me, the whole profession is incredibly rewarding even with the long hours of planning and correcting. When I'm not doing that, I'm in front of my students being the odd combination of teacher, talk show host and comedian. (Okay, I can only be a comedian on my really good days.)

The only thing I don't really like about teaching is grading. I should clarify. Correcting copies is fine. Sure it can be tedious, but it lets me know what my students still don't understand. It's the actual assigning of a grade that I really don't like. Ugh. Maybe I just don't like to give my students bad grades even when I know that those are the grades they earned.

In France, marking is particularly hard simply because the point of it all seems to be to let the students know that they don't know anything. Their marks just seem to scream at them, "You're so incredibly stupid !!" For one thing, the grading system is not out of 100 points but out of 20. Yes, twenty. It doesn't leave much room for variation, and you certainly can't lose very many points without failing.

To make things even worse, you can't simply adjust the grading system to the American version. That would be too easy. Nobody ever gets 18/20 or higher unless they've completed the assignment as well as a professor. A perfect score or even nineteen out of twenty is the stuff of legends. Give the students a grade like that and they'll think it's a mistake. The best score most students can hope for is a sixteen--an 80%. A low B by US standards. So why don't they grade out of sixteen points instead of out of twenty? I have no idea. All I know is that 16 is very good, anything below ten is failing and anything in between 10 and 16 is considered good or average.

So here I am going through my poor students' copies, correcting their little English mistakes, suggesting better ways for them to organize their essays and then trying to assign them a French grade even though I have the "feel-good" American system stuck in my head. I know that they will be surprised when they get their exams back. I can already hear the comments: "Mais, c'est très gentil Madame." This is really nice, Ma'am. Meaning "too nice." Whereas most French teachers would fail around three quarters of their students, I just cannot do it. Sure the students' work isn't perfect, but in most cases, I wouldn't say it was at the level of failing. So why fail them?

And so it is with this sense of fairness (or pity?) that I assign my students their "too nice" grades. And most of them will not only pass my class, but will probably pass it with a "good grade." That's okay with me. I tell myself that my high marks will tip the scales just a tiny bit in the direction of encouragement and maybe, just maybe, allow my students to continue their studies at the university. But in reality, it's more likely that such marks will only give me the reputation of being the silly, easy-grading American teacher. Ugh.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Music in the metro (the good, the bad and the ugly)

I use the Paris railway system (metro, RER, SNCF) nearly everyday and think that it is absolutely fabulous despite any delays or cancellations. And I do think that the railway system does make efforts to make public transportation a pleasant experience. For example, there is almost always music on the Paris railways and in the stations. Music in the metros is probably on my list of the top 10 things I love about Parisian life.'s also on my list of the 10 things I hate about Parisian life. I tend to classify metro music into one of three categories.

The first category is comprised of the professional musicians. To play in the Parisian metros, you need to audition for the job and you are given a sort of license to play there. Different stations have different musicians. Just the other day, I was in the Palais Royal station where a man was playing lovely music on his violin. It was so calming and so fitting for a station that leads into the Louvre. In another station, I've heard the most amazing accordion player. Yes, you read that right. I'm usually not a huge fan, but this guy can play all the parts of Vivaldi's "Winter" on his accordion. It is just incredible.

In the second category are the guys who are not licensed to play in the metro, but who are trying to earn some cash with a little entertainment. This can be hit or miss, but usually these guys aren't too bad! A few days ago, I was in a very crowded RER train and a guy shouted out that he was going to sing a little tune for everyone's enjoyment. As it turned out, he couldn't sing at all which he admitted afterward. He then said that he really just wanted a little extra money and that he was sad because it was Christmas time and he had no girlfriend. The whole thing turned into this great little comedy routine. Everyone was laughing. Excellent. Unfortunately, I couldn't see who he was and so couldn't hand him over the change from my pocket.

The last category is the only one that I really just cannot stand. It has apparently become a trend for people to "share" their music with everyone on the train. This means that they open the music they've loaded onto their cell phones and turn the volume all the way up. They seem to have this idea that they're doing everyone an incredible favor by playing tinny-sounding hip hop through their crappy little phone speakers. Why why why? I thought it was part of this need to be the center of attention--like they're on a reality show. Gaby's theory is that they can better pretend they're in a music video if they're playing their music out loud and everyone's glaring at them. I think he's onto something.

How to deal? For category 1, no problem. I love it. For category 2, I have my mp3 player and earphones ready just in case the entertainment's not so entertaining. And for category 3? Well, I've started carrying around a hammer so I can ... ... I mean, I'll just turn up my own music and hope it drowns out theirs. SIGH.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Files d'attente or Waiting in line.

I hate waiting in line. There are instances where I manage to stay relaxed and patient, but usually I'm thinking of all the better things I could be doing if I were not having to wait.

And the problem in France? French people do not know how to wait in lines because they never really FORM any LINE. Their idea of queuing is more like crowding and then pushing past everyone else to get to the front first. It doesn't matter what the line is for--the ATM, the lunch counter, the metro ticket window, the checkout desk at the library--I encounter this crowding problem everywhere. Most times I'm not even sure where to stand because it's absolutely impossible to tell where the line begins and ends. Just so you have an idea, this is a random picture of a French "line." No beginning or end in sight.

To make matters worse, there's always the little crowd of people who are just standing around next to the line and who seem oblivious to the fact that some people are trying to actually get something.

In the US, I would have fewer problems with this, even if "queuing" and "crowding" were synonymous there as well. If someone tried to cut in front of me, I would not hesitate to tell them that they need to wait their turn like everyone else. But saying something to the same effect in French seems rather...daunting. The last thing I need is some snotty French girl (it's always been snotty girls who have cut in front of me) bitching me out in the kind of rapid slangy French that I don't understand very well.

So what to do? At this point, I'm considering playing the foreign card. Yes, after having lost my place more than half a dozen times, I would do it. I'll go wherever I want in the, and if someone complains that I've cut in front of them, I'll just say, "Uh...Daysolay...Jay nay paRlay paw fransay" and feign ignorance over any signs they might make about going to the end of the line, wherever that might be. And they can think I'm a stupid American as much as they want. I'll still be getting my sandwich first.

French apartments

Sorry for the hiatus, but we've been moving. We finally found a new at the beginning of November. This is cause for celebration (much like the carte de sejour was) because as anyone who has lived in or near Paris knows, finding an apartment is an arduous task.

The last time I lived in Paris, I searched for a month. This did not mean browsing the housing ads and circling a few places that might interest me and then calling when it was convenient. No. Apartment hunting means WAR. It means calling at least ten places every single day and making appointments and then trying desperately to please the landlord and hope that (s)he'll take pity on you and let you have a place to live.

This time Gaby did all of this for us. My hero!! Still, the apartment hunt seemed to be an uphill battle.

The first problem was with the ads themselves. Just because they're posted and the paper says they're "new" doesn't mean that they really are. Many times, we found out that the apartments in our "new" ads had been rented for several weeks already and that the ad was more than a month old. Another problem with the ads was that some landlords just lie about their apartments. For instance, "10 minute walk to the train station" often really means "10 minute sprint but 25 minute walk". Oh, and when they say an apartment is 30 meters squared, they are counting every single space in the apartment, including every single stair and even the closet with the water heater in it. I've seen some very small "30m2" apartments.

Second problem? The landlords ultimately get to choose who lives there and their criteria can be very subjective. It's almost like going to an interview if you're dealing with the landlord personally. My last landlord picked me because I was an English teacher and he wanted extra lessons. Gaby and I were not so lucky in one case. We visited one very charming studio one Friday evening during an open house. What we didn't realize was that the landlady had already decided she wanted a single female student to live there. So, she told any young girls to visit the apartment on Thursday and any young guys or couples to visit on Friday. What a waste of time for us! By Friday, she'd already chosen her new renter and we were just there...well, I don't know why we were there.

Last problem. Money. If you go through an agency, (which we finally did out of desperation), they absolutely require that you make not just double the rent of an apartment, but THREE times the amount. As a lecturer at the university, I make very little money for big-city living. Under their criteria I would often not be able to rent a 9m2 studio. Nine meters squared is the size of a walk-in closet by the way. But Gaby and I together were fine with his fam as co-signers. Whew!

Now for the good news. The apartment is fabulous!! It's not a studio which is nice because I like having my rooms separated. It is literally 2 minutes from the train station, but not facing the train station so we don't have a noise problem. And the best part? It overlooks the Seine.

Okay okay, that's not exactly our view. But it almost is! I took the picture below from our living room window.

Autumn here was gorgeous. All the leaves are gone now, but that just makes it easier to see the ducks and swans swimming in the Seine.

And the inside? Well, we're still busy decorating which is hard to do when we're both desperately trying to finish papers or dissertation chapters. In any case, it's good to have such a quaint place to call our own. :)

Friday, November 7, 2008

American Elections in France

After Bush was re-elected in 2004, many many French people asked me, "How can you Americans be so stupid??" Yes, they said it just like that. There was no sugar-coating. They had been hoping that we Americans would show the world how angry we were with Bush by voting him out of office. Of course they were disappointed. But since then, their hope for Americans to redeem themselves has only grown.

The French's interest and enthusiasm for this year's elections has been overwhelming. I'm not sure I've ever seen so many people waiting and hoping for Obama to be voted into least not so many people who are not American. Of the nine classes I'm teaching this semester, I think the students of eight of them wanted to talk in depth about the elections at some point. The question that everyone had on the very first day of class (in all my classes) was, "Who will you be voting for?"

Everyday on the French news there were multiple reports about the American elections. I knew everything that was going on, but my students (embarrassingly enough) always seemed to know more. One Frenchman who was interviewed admitted that he was more interested in the American elections than in the French ones.

And of course there are the Guignols de l'Info, a satirical puppet show that does not hesitate to make fun of Americans...or French people....or anyone for that matter. (see pic* above) They portrayed John McCain as the tough war hero whose body parts had all been replaced by machines or transplants. And Obama was the candidate who replied to nearly every question with "YES WE CAN!" or something that almost rhymed with it (Genghis Khan! Nicole Kidman!). His guignol ad campaigns played like movie trailers. The jingle "Do you believe in magic?"was always playing in the background, followed by an American-accented "Je suis Barack Obama et j'approuve ce message."

I highly recommend that you check out the Guignols just to get an idea of what they look and sound like, even if you don't understand French:

And the day of the elections? Everyone was waiting. Cafés held mock elections where the French "voted" for Obama. Later, there were all-night parties where people stayed up and waited for the results. And the next day? My students said they got text messages at 5:00 am telling them that Obama had won. There were big celebrations everywhere, with more French people than Americans. People were comparing Obama to the Messiah, and some of my students told me their faith in the American dream had been renewed. When Gaby went to the university, one of his classmates clapped him on the back and exclaimed, "On a gagné!" (We won!) We. Oui.

I finally had to ask my students why the French were so interested in the US. And they said that it was simply because the US influences so many other countries economically and culturally. Many did admit however that they did not think things would change in France just because Obama had been elected. Others said that they felt better about the US's image, and they thought Obama would take care of his country. "After all," one student informed me, "the US has lots of problems."

Obama is a symbol of hope and change for so many people in America and abroad. Am I hopeful? I am always hopeful. But do I believe in magic?

* image taken from

Friday, October 31, 2008

Le Halloween

Halloween in France is definitely (and unfortunately) not like Halloween in the USA. I was looking forward to making jack o' lanterns with Gaby and his mom. It's my favorite part of Halloween. We went to three big supermarkets and couldn't find pumpkins anywhere. No Jack o' lanterns. :( Sad face.

Even worse, we didn't buy candy this year, mainly because the stores don't sell the big promotional bags of it. I kept putting it off because I didn't want to spend 3-4 euros on a tiny bag of lollipops that I would probably end up eating myself before Halloween night.

We were not off to a good start, but I supposed seeing people in costumes could still be a possibility. No. The only people who dress up in costumes are the North Americans and the Brits. That's not to say that the French don't try to get into the spirit of things. Some of my students told me they were going to costume parties. Fabulous! Then they told me they hadn't decided what to wear and admitted that they might not dress up after all. Well, okay....I can't be too critical. I don't like to dress up that much either. At least they were having parties.

And the cute little French kids would be dressing up, right? That would be good enough. No. Here, even the kids don't usually dress up, but they still go trick or treating. They might put on a little wig or eye mask and that's it. They ring the door bell and basically say, "I'm CRAZY wig head! Give me some candy."

Okay, okay, they really just say, "Give me some candy."

If you don't have candy, watch out. When the French kids go "trick or treating," they go *trick* or treating. We informed a small group of girls that we had forgotten to get candy. They yelled at us phrases that I didn't know could come out of 7-year old girls' mouths. Five minutes later, they came back and overturned all our trashcans (trash, recycling and glass). When Gaby caught them, they lied and said that some "black kids" had done it. And then when he didn't believe them, they said they would come back and do it all again and egg the house. Because we hadn't given them 2 or 3 pieces of candy. *&^$*@&% &*^*&%%$$!!!! WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE????!!

Apparently, they "trick or treat" the whole weekend. o_O

A French Halloween horror story if I've ever heard one. They won't ever be getting any candy from me. GRRRRR....

So what will this poor disappointed American be doing tonight? I'll be curling up with Gaby, a bag of popcorn and the classic Halloween horror film. That will be a good enough Halloween for me.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

French Stores

We ran out of toilet paper this morning. As I was the only one home in the early afternoon and I had already had several glasses of Evian and Coca light, I decided it would be wise to run a few errands. Of course this means walking because I don't have a car here, but that was okay. It was a gorgeous fall day. So I grabbed my jacket and wallet and headed out to downtown Achères.

As I was walking, I couldn't help but notice how empty the streets were. I figured it was normal. Everyone was at work or school right? And then as I neared the pharmacy, I saw that its little green cross was not illuminated. Closed? On a Tuesday? Was it a holiday? Just beyond the pharmacy, I could see that the small grocery store ED's was also closed, the metal cages pulled over the doors and windows. It couldn't be a holiday. Someone would've told me right?

And then I remembered. It was still "lunchtime." French stores all close for lunch sometime around noon and and don't open again until 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon. The pharmacy wouldn't reopen until 2:30. I didn't even look at the grocery store's hours, but instead headed back home desperately hoping that there was perhaps a stray roll of toilet paper (or Kleenex! or even paper towels!) in one of the cabinets. And I really began to wish I had skipped that last glass of Coca Light...sigh....

At about 3:30, Gaby got home and we got ready to head out again. But clouds had moved in by this time and as I was once again putting on my jacket, it started pouring outside. Too much pop, pouring rain and no TP are a bad combination. Today France was definitely against me. I missed Target. And its long hours. And my car. :(

Don't get me wrong. I do think it's nice that people get a 2-hour lunch. As someone who usually has to scarf down a sandwich between classes, I can appreciate having time to enjoy a meal and even digest a little before returning to work. That said, I still wish that there was some sort of emergency store open for people who run out of a very necessary item right before or even during the lunch hours.

Oh, and when we did finally get to the store to run our errands, we very nearly forgot the toilet paper believe it or not. Sigh...

Sunday, October 19, 2008

La Formation Civique

I was not looking forward to this class that all foreigners are required to take to learn about living in France. For one thing it would last from 9:00 to 5:00. For another, most of the session was to focus on "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité." Eight hours of brainwashing straight out of George Orwell's 1984. I was sure of it.

I arrived 15 minutes early and joined a few other shy-looking foreigners outside of a building with the sign INSTEP posted on its door. I guess INSTEP is the private company that does this formation. Close to 9:00, a young woman greeted us with a friendly "Bonjour", invited us to come inside and offered us some coffee. This was not what I was expecting at all. Once we were in a small classroom, she introduced herself as Clotilde and told us she would like us to introduce ourselves and tell how long we had been in France and where we were from. A lot of people were from Africa, mainly Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, but also some people from Mali, Cameroun, and the Ivory Coast. Others came from all over. There were people from the Philippines, the Ukraine, Mexico, China, Argentina, Brazil and Haiti. I was the only American and I had been there the shortest amount of time out of everyone.

Everyone was really nice, including the teacher. We started with a short history of France, all the way up to the present day. That was okay. But then we talked about living in France, French government, voting and some French laws. I had thought that France was pretty much just like the U.S. when it came to some basic freedoms. But apparently the freedom of speech is a little more limited. For example, it is against the law to spout off neo-nazi ideas. In the U.S. we can totally say those kinds of things no matter how awful they are.

We also talked about really practical things like finding an apartment, signing up kids for school or finding daycare. (In France, you have to apply for a daycare center when you're only 2 months pregnant. Otherwise you won't get a spot because there's just not room.) The teacher also helped us know what to do if we ever found ourselves facing any kind of discrimination or even spousal abuse. She gave us numbers to call and everything.

One of the most interesting aspects of the whole thing though was hearing about everyone else's countries. We did a lot of comparisons and people asked a lot of questions. Some of the Maghrébins (people from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia) were shocked and kind of upset when they found out that people from the USA and Mexico didn't need a VISA just to visit France. Considering their histories with France, I would have been kind of mad too if I were them.

The formation lasted until 4:30--we got to go a bit early. Before we left, the teacher congratulated us and then presented us with blue certificates stating that we had completed our formation civique. Yay! Now we just have to keep the certificates and bring them with us when we renew our green cards.

All in all, although I still would have preferred to do my own work that day, it really wasn't a bad class to have taken. Or maybe Big Brother just got to me. o_O (wink)

Friday, October 10, 2008

Faubourg 36

Faubourg 36 is a film that exemplifies what I associate with traditional France: the winding streets and stairways of Paris, the strikes, the cabaret-type spectacles with a sprinkling of accordeon music, and of course, the love story. The delightful music, costumes and sets certainly make Faubourg 36 beautiful to watch on the big screen, but the film is not simply a superficial show of song and sentiment. It offers much more. Set in 1930s Paris at the election of the Front Populaire, the plot revolves around a small working class group of people--three men and a young woman--who try to find stability in their lives by occupying and eventually reopening their neighborhood theater, le Chansonia. The characters' personal stories and their collective struggle against the right-wing mafia-esque theater owner illustrate some of the political, social and financial hardships faced by many during the Great Depression. With its beautiful presentation and touching story that is more profound than the previews would suggest, this film is a must-see at the cinema. I can only hope that it makes it to the United States.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

La Bretagne (Brittany)

We traveled to Brittany at the beginning of September (yes, this is a late late post). Anyway, it's a lovely part of France known for its crêpes and galettes (savory buckwheat crepes). After visiting the English Channel seaside or La Manche (the sleeve), as the French call it, we enjoyed some of those crêpes and galettes at a little restaurant nearby.

Brittany also has more than a few walled in medieval towns (cités fortifiées), and we visited one by the name of Moncontour--taking this picture was the only way I could remember the name. (blush)

I thought this little passage looked really pretty with the flowers growing out of the walls, the little lamp hanging down and the red Tudor-style house in the background. Gaby's used to this sort of thing I imagine, but we stopped to get a picture for me. His mom took this one. :)

This is the same passage from the other side. I don't know who those people are, but that woman's sweater seems to complement those flowers on the right and adds a nice little splash of color.
Okay, I know they're just houses, but to me they look cool and so European with the stone and shutters and flowers in the window boxes. And can't you just imagine French people leaning out the windows and breaking into the opening "Bonjour, bonjour.." song from Disney's "Beauty and the Beast"? No? It's just me? Okay. Sigh....

Another walled passage on our way out of the town.

At the end of the passage, I had to stop and admire the hydrangea, a flower that I associate with Brittany because I always see so many of them there.

And finally the French countryside on the way back to Achères. If I didn't know better, I would guess that this picture was taken in Kansas. place like home. Good thing France reminds me of the Sunflower State in a few little ways. ;)

Monday, October 6, 2008

La Carte de Séjour (the French Green Card)

I got my receipt for my French green card (mon récépissé)!! Anyone who has been through the trials and tribulations of immigration bureaucracy knows that this is reason for celebration. Getting the récépissé means I can get paid. I should buy some champagne and some of those little crackers with bacon in the middle.

You might wonder how bad it can possibly be to get a carte de séjour. VERY VERY BAD. When I tried to get one four years ago, I must have made little mistakes every step of the way because nothing went right. I didn't get paid for over 2 months. Later I got my pay cut for 2 weeks because I'd forgotten to get my work authorization card. After I did apply for it, it got lost in the mail and I had to beg for a new copy.

This time was much easier because I'm not living in Paris and do not have to go to the crowded Paris prefecture where they process these documents. Instead, I'm living in the small town of Achères in Les Yvelines, a suburban district west of Paris. This means I get to go to the Versailles prefecture--yes, that Versailles with the famous château. I also have the amazing advantage of having my own personal French guide to support me along the way and interject when necessary in perfect French. Thank you sweet Gaby!

This is not to say that everything was rosy just west of Paris. First, we went to the wrong prefecture which was over an hour away by train. There, the fonctionnaire told us that their office processes cartes de sejour only for foreigners married to French citizens. Huh? We would have to go to the Versailles prefecture which opens at 8:45 everyday. Since they accept only about 20 applicants a day, it's best to arrive early to get a spot. About 5:00 a.m. would be fine. Sad face. We got up in the middle of the night and arrived at the prefecture at 5:30. Not a soul in sight. So we were first right? But after two hours, there was still no one else. Something was not right. At 7:30, the doors opened, so we went inside to ask about my green card. The receptionist informed us that the carte de séjour door was in the annex 2 blocks away. Indeed. Fifty people were in line ahead of us. So much for getting up early. I began mentally preparing myself to come back the next day.

The doors opened, the line moved quickly and we were inside by 9:00. And then the unexpected happened. At the reception, I found out that there was a special window for salaried workers like me (guichet 25) and that it would open at 9:30. There had been no need to arrive so early after all since not many salaried workers were asking for their green cards. What??! We could have come at 9:30 and been fine?? I could hardly complain though; I would have an appointment that day. In the end, the line was very short and the woman working at window 25 turned out to be okay. She gave me a list of all the documents I would need and told me to mail them to the prefecture. I told her I had all my documents with me and couldn't I just leave them there with her? She repeated that I needed to mail them. Gaby stepped in. She told me I could leave my documents there. Whew!

Several days later, I got a letter in the mail saying my file had been accepted and that my receipt was ready to be picked up. This meant going back to Versailles prefecture, but at a reasonable hour (ahem, 10:30). Everything went smoothly, I got my récépissé and now I will finally have money deposited in my new French bank account.

I consider myself lucky because despite the little inconveniences, Versailles got things done quickly. My poor American colleagues are still dealing with their nightmare prefectures in Paris and Nanterre and may not get their récépissés for least 2 or 3 more months. This means no pay for 2 or 3 months. These are the conditions for salaried workers who have work contracts. And for immigrants who are still looking for work? I imagine they're forced to waste precious time waiting in line every morning at the prefecture trying to get an appointment. And that's only the beginning.

Monday, September 29, 2008

French meetings

I've decided I rather like French meetings. I guess I should say that I liked the three that I've been to in the past month. It's not that the content of the meetings themselves is particularly interesting or that it's always well-presented. No, no. It's knowing that at the end of the meeting, there will be drinks and snacks. And that the person in charge of it all seems to be rushing through his information in order to get to the drinks and snacks in a timely manner.

At the beginning of September, a meeting for all the Anglophone lecturers at Nanterre was followed by red wine and little savory snacks. After this, we were treated to a simple yet delicious lunch of enormous baguette sandwiches. And then to coffee. So nice.

Last week, I went to an obligatory departmental meeting that I was absolutely dreading because I knew I wouldn't know anybody and I wouldn't know what anybody was talking about. To make matters worse, the room we were to meet in was designed to hold 30 people, but over twice as many would be attending. Ugh.

The meeting was indeed crowded, long and full of repetitions, but all this was smoothed over by drinks and food at the end. There was a nice little selection of red and rosé wines, a brut hard cider and various fruit juices. And then there were all sorts of little crackers that would be incredibly well-received in the U.S. if only they were available there! Some of my favorites were shaped like tiny pizzas. And tasted like them too. Another one looked like a normal Ritz cracker, but lo and behold, on the inside of it, there was BACON. Heavenly.

And this was only the beginning. After our departmental meeting, we had to go to another one that was for all the language departments. I believe this one wasn't meant to be a real meeting at all, but rather, an excuse to eat. The speaker made a few introductions and then we were invited to help ourselves to a large spread the departments had provided. Quiche, chips and dips, more crackers and nuts, trays and trays of lovely miniature tarts, cream puffs and other French pastries that I'm not familiar with, and of course a variety of red and white wine, soda and juice. Fabulous.

And so, for me, it turnedout that the most difficult part of the meetings was trying not to look too piggy around all the food. Considering I walked out with a big guacamole stain on my white blouse, I don't think I succeeded.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Life is a Bowl of Cherries (or grapes...or melon)

Ha ! soutenez-moi, je me pâme !
Ce morceau me chatouille l’âme.
--Saint-Amant "Le Melon"

Mmmm...I love fruit, and here in France, I can hardly get enough of it. The melon in the picture has not been photo-shopped. It's really that orange and so sweet, it's almost guilt-inducing. As I'm used to having melon readily available for breakfast and snacking, I bought one the other day to feel a little more chez moi. The melons here are small, not much bigger than a softball, but boy are they packed with flavor. When I bit into a slice of it this afternoon, I had to remind myself that I was eating a healthful fruit and not a sugary piece of candy.

Almost daily, I pass a man selling fruits and vegetables at a little stand in the Achères train station. He arranges them so beautifully with some fruits cut in half to show how deliciously ripe they are. And every time, I have to will myself to keep walking without buying something. Not that it would be bad to buy fruit of all things, but I'm not sure I'd be able to eat it all and then it would go to waste. Not to mention my budget. So, for now I'm planning to get my little favorites one at a time. After payday, when I'll be earning real euros and not the sadly weak dollars (sigh), it's quite possible that I'll go nuts (or bananas?) and buy all the fruit I want. :P

Saturday, September 20, 2008

La Visite Medicale or Being a Good French Citizen

All people not belonging to the E.U. must undergo a short medical visit at immigration services. It's not invasive and not a big deal. They check vision, height, weight and take x-rays to check for tuberculosis, just in case we are unknowingly dying of consumption. I've done this all before and knew what to expect. Or at least I thought I did.

When I arrived at the immigration services building, I noticed that the name had changed from OMI to ANAEM. I can't remember what these letters stand for, but the change should have clued me in that things would be different this time.

Upon arrival, the other foreigners and I were herded into a small conference room and seated around a large table. Big windows overlooked the street and a small table with fresh hot coffee and tea stood in a corner. Nice. On the wall to my right, the official portrait of Nicolas Sarkozy looked down on us, a little group of étrangers. Not so nice. Next to his picture hung a screen with a projected notice that our medical visit would last for a half-day. What? A half-day? We all groaned. A few minutes later, a woman came in and explained to us in French that we would have our medical visit and that then we would have to sign a contract with the state saying that we would all make an effort to live like good French citizens. A contract. Weird.

So, what does it mean to be a good French citizen? Well, first and foremost, I guess it means speaking French because anyone who doesn't speak French well enough is required by the government to take French classes. My French was good enough, and they gave me a special certificate to prove it.

Being a good citizen also means accepting the way of life in France. As an introduction to this, they had us watch a short film that explained that everyone in France is equal:

Vivre ensemble en France

The film showed many beautiful pictures of France but focused mainly on the French slogan: Liberté, égalité, fraternité. Sure, it all sounds good, let's be frank. Is it true? I can think of more than a few examples that contradict this famous motto (just as I could in my own country), but this post would be way too long. Another time.

Let's just say that it was with a jaded view that I watched this little piece, shook my head, and wondered what sort of propaganda I would see during my obligatory formation civique.

Friday, September 19, 2008

La Mode

As a girl from the Midwest, I'll be the first to admit that I'm not really into avant-garde fashion. Or even just fashion, period. Sure, I watch "Project Runway" when I can. I take note of Stacy and Clinton's clothing advice for short girls in "What not to Wear." But more often than not, I'm a plain old tee-shirt and jeans kind of gal.

Now that I'm in Paris, one of the fashion capitals of the world, I see some unusual and often beautiful clothing that I would be curious to wear or at least try on. I could go on forever about the shoes alone. And I would love all of these items even more if they were somewhat affordable...sigh....

On the other hand, in such a city of high fashion, I am exposed to some very...well, let's not beat around the bush...UGLY, UGLY styles. Here, the the 1980s are once again in full swing. Everywhere I see the skinny jeans (aka tapered jeans) that are unflattering on everyone but the thinnest girls. Fine. I can deal with that. I can even think that the brightly colored stockings, leggings, tunics worn off the shoulder, big chunky belts and jewelry, and unlaced hightop basketball shoes are fun. Amazingly, the Euro-mullets no longer faze me.

What has really thrown me for a loop are the Hammer pants. Yes, as in MC Hammer. My, my, my, my. I can hardly count the number of men and women I've seen wearing these billowing pants, often buttoned at the ankles, the crotch hanging down to their knees. I even saw a girl wearing acid-washed denim Hammer capris. I stared at her shamelessly while silently cursing myself for not having my camera. This is the closest image I could find:

Why, dear French people?? WHY ?

Perhaps the worst thing about this new trend is that I very likely will see it reproduced in the Midwest within the next few years. And quite possibly paired with Uggs. Sigh.

Arrival at CDG-Terminal 1

The very first time I came to France was ten years ago in June of 1998. A French major who was too shy to study abroad for a year, I had decided to do the short summer program in Paris. I was with a group of about 30 American students, it was the first time I'd been to Europe, and the French were hosting the World Cup that year. Other students who had already been to France had shared their stories with me, filling my head with grand images of the beautiful country and its culture. And so it was with high expectations of French glamor and romanticism that I stepped off the plane into the Charles de Gaulle Airport. Terminal One. The old part.

Instead of my highly-anticipated picture of fashion, beauty, class, and art (yes even at the airport), I was greeted by a thick cloud of cigarette smoke and a terminal that resembled my parents' unfinished basement. My disappointment turned to horrified awe as I watched several agents of the Police Nationale walk by carrying big automatic weapons. Whoa. Had I really just arrived in France?? The last remnants of my naive vision were swept away by the customs agent who yelled at me in English for not having my customs card filled out correctly. Yes, the first time I came in France, I found myself defiantly holding back tears at the baggage claim and wondering if I hadn't made a mistake by choosing to study abroad.

How different from my arrival at Charles de Gaulle ten years later! An experienced traveler who's returned to France many times since my first trip (which did turn out lovely despite the rocky start), I breezed through Terminal One. Well, okay, after waiting in line at the bathroom (only 3 stalls at the very busy CDG!!), I breezed right through. Terminal One still looks like a basement but no cigarette smoke clouded my way. No one yelled at me, I didn't cry and I thankfully did not see the Police Nationale. Instead, Gaby was waiting for me at the gate with open arms and kisses. His mom greeted me with the two bises and a very welcome pastry. From McDonald's. Okay, it's not really French but so delicious all the same and unavailable in American McDonalds, so that makes it special, right? Through the hugs and kisses and then later during the drive to the suburbs just to the west of Paris, I was acutely aware of how incredibly familiar everything was. How pleasant to find that France seemed less a mysterious foreign country and more like a comfortable (and very charming) second home. Was it the American fast food? My dear Gaby and his mom waiting to welcome me? Or is it just that I have become so accustomed to this place? I suppose it's most likely a combination of the three. That said, I'm sure France still holds plenty of surprises, both good and bad, and I'll be waiting to discover them.